All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Country goes to Town

La Fiesta au Moulin Rouge-03Image by Julie70 via Flickr
There are times when I feel like Heinrich Schliemann, excavating Troy and finding to his growing dismay that there seemed to be an awful lot more of it than he had bargained for.

It is entirely my own fault, too, just as it was his.
No one forced us to start.

When sorting out books and revues, I have a tendency to light on something I haven't seen for some time and take it off to read...leaving the box or shelf whence it was removed in the same disorganised state that it was in when I started. 
Which was why I started.

Finally returning to the task - as my father used to remark, like a dog to its' vomit - I then find something else to pick up and take away, so the process of sorting things out advances at a pace which would shame any self respecting sloth.

However, like Schliemann, I do make discoveries.

Thus, tucked into an acte de vente for a house sold in 2006, the coach trip company's brochure for 2005, offering everything from a bateau mouche on the river Erdre at Nantes  to a tour of Andalucia with the reassuring mention that a French speaking guide will accompany the tour from the moment it crosses the Spanish border until the moment it returns to the sacred soil of France. So that's all right chance of some dubious foreigner leading the tour astray with the offer of fabada and morcilla.

When I was of primary school age, my mother and her sisters would occasionally break the demented tedium of the school holidays by taking their collective brood for a day trip in the cream and chocolate coaches of Surrey Motors.
The sisters favoured Stately Homes, so we children saw acres of gloomy looking aristocrats peering down from walls, probably thinking that if they hadn't blown their riches on fast girls and slow horses their descendants wouldn't have had to let the descendants of the servants hall loose in the family side of the house.

There were lighter moments.....
I still treasure the image of the small boy balancing on a cliff in the Cheddar Gorge shouting 'Look Mum! No hands!' while his parent was hitching up her frock in an attempt to scale the rocks to get at him.
Not to get to him. To get at him.
In those unenlightened days I think it highly unlikely that he would have been congratulated on his derring do and invited to make a drawing of it for the pinboard in the kitchen....a swift clump seemed a more likely possibility to judge from his mother's expression.
And if she'd laddered her stockings I wouldn't have given much for his chances of sitting down for a while, either.

Not until moving to France did I come across coach trips again, and then only because I had been trapped by the dashing local dentist into taking part in amateur those proceeds of ticket sales that had not been spent on providing galvanised buckets of mulled wine while 'on tour' in the neighbouring villages were dedicated to taking the participants, friends and families to see a play in coach.

I was taken under the wing of Alfred and his wife Renee. He, limping from some unspecified illness in his youth, always played the manservant roles in the farces which were the staple offering, year in, year out, and his leer was famed over five communes. Not just on the stage, either.
He and his wife ran a B and the days before every B and B in France was run by a smiling Brit...and Renee ran a tight ship.
Alfred was kept busy in the garden supplying fruit and veg for her table and store cupboard and had to watch his Ps and Qs,  reserving his leer for the potting shed.
However, when Renee was called away to her ever-ailing mother, Alfred was in sole charge.

I had sent a friend there when he turned up unexpectedly at the house only to find every bed and sofa full.
He appeared, as arranged, at about ten at night, having had dinner with the rest of us and Alfred showed him to his room, which involved climbing a stone staircase up the outside of the house without benefit of light or handrail.
Relieved at making it in one piece, he was unpacking his toothbrush when there came a knock on the door, which opened to reveal Alfred with a bottle and two glasses.
Alfred descended and ascended twice more before they decided that they had made enough of a night of it and the friend retired to sleep the sleep of the just.
In the morning he descended the he said, the nearest he had ever been to self find Alfred showing him to the breakfast table.
Everything was laid up correctly....croissants and flute of bread fresh from Moniques' van....home made - and a large china hen.
Alfred removed its' lid with ceremony to reveal eight boiled eggs.
'Renee says I have to do boiled eggs for foreigners' breakfasts...but I don't know how you like I've done a variety...everything from three minutes to six and a half.'
'But which is which?'
'I don't know. You'll just have to try them all.'

They collected me by car,  together with another couple of waifs and strays and headed to the mairie where the cars would be laagered up for the day.
The coach was waiting and the dentist was counting heads, most of which were well covered in headscarves or caps, it being a nippy April morning.
The count finally coinciding with his list, and Monsieur Machin's daughter having run down the road with his pills for the day, we were off.
We stopped for lunch at a motorway service station which offered the usual fare of stuff that had been cooked at nine in the morning and had sat in trays ever since and hit Paris in the early afternoon, in time for a tour of the sights before being let out at the theatre.
We were counted again and led to our seats by a female usher who, it appeared, had to be paid for not letting us find our own way in our own time and settled down to enjoy the play.

Now, the dentist always produced Feydeau farces, all swinging doors and split second timing, and the play we had come to see was itself a farce by Feydeau...wonderfully acted, but it was clear that this one would never feature in our repertoire.
The major part of the action consisted in the leading lady continually swinging her leg over a chair back, thus inducing the other female characters to assume this to be the latest fashion and copy her.
Passing in review the leading ladies available to our dentist, I came to the conclusion that without even counting the bad backs, lacking some sort of assistance from a fork lift, not one of the elastic support stockinged legs would make it over a footstool, never mind a chair back.
Not to speak of the effect on the audience if they did.
The local hospital would be on red alert for cardiac arrest.

After the play, we were bussed to the Pigalle district, home of the Moulin Rouge, where some of the gentlemen whiled away the hour until our reservation at the restaurant in fixing their noses to the advertising photographs of semi naked women in feathers....Monsieur Machin popping a pill the while...while others saw fit to show their wives the old garrison buildings where they had done their national service - and the really unwary showed their wives where the girls they visited at that time used to hang out.
The expressions of the wives so informed resembled that of the mother about to claw her child down from the cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge.
Fortunately Alfred had done his national service elsewhere....and knew when to keep his mouth shut.

The restaurant had corralled us into a function room on the first floor, the aperitifs were generous and the food was good.
No Michelin stuff, which would not have been appreciated anyway, but basic classics and plenty of it.
The main course served, the waiting staff departed for the restaurant downstairs, leaving ample supplies of wine on the table.
Well, I thought it was ample, but others thought differently.
'Think we're a school outing, or what?'
'What's this, alcoholics anonymous? croix d'or?'
'I'll have a look round.'

No sooner said than done. A posse of gentlemen started opening cupboard doors revealing stocks of linen and other necessities of restaurant life until they found the door to the wine stock for the function room.
Bottles were passed out, opened and enjoyed and the waiting staff returned to take the orders for cheese and dessert to find tables boasting more bottles than they had left when they departed.
I was waiting for the explosion....but nothing....the meal continued through coffee and digestives and we left without the slightest sign of protest on the part of the management.

Back on the coach, I was given the seat next to the dentist, who was the nearest thing to a seductive man that I have ever met in France and I could quite understand why the wife of the chateau owner in the next commune was happy to avail herself of his asiduous attention to her cavities.
But the business with the wine was still puzzling me, so I asked him what on earth was going on.
Why weren't the restaurant staff furious?

He stopped me.
I had to understand something.
This restaurant catered for parties up from the country on a visit to Paris.
They knew their customers.
They quoted for a very generous allocation of wine, but, if it was all produced at once then it would all have been consumed long before the cheese arrived and people would have to order more individually which was a nuisance for the staff....and might be a bit embarassing for some of the customers, since not everyone was well heeled.
Thus the supply in the cupboards...initially to be set out by the staff after the main course.
However, groups like his had been going to that restaurant for years, knew that extra wine was to be supplied and where it was kept, so just helped themselves.
Suited everyone.

'Mark you, though, they won't accept bookings from the old age pensioners any more.'

'Why on earth not?'

'They loot.'

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  1. Oh what a brilliant story. Such wonderful characters. My goodness you have had some interesting experiences. I really enjoyed that post Fly....thankyou xx

  2. Nice to know that in this modern civilized world of ours the spirit of the old hunter gatherers has not been lost...

  3. The organizing thing sound oh so familiar :D

  4. Ayak, I was so lucky to have seen 'old France' before it disappeared.

    Steve, if I ever post about the OAPs you'll think you're back in the age of the dinosaurs!

    choochoo, you have to like organising to do it well, I suppose, but I think it's easier in France where people are used to doing as they're told.

  5. I'd love to hear some tales of your 'am dram a la francaise' days. As for this boozathon at the Paris restaurant - you must have wondered what you were seeing when they began helping themselves from the cupboards.

  6. French Fancy,
    I did a bit about am dram on the link to a post called 'shocking' which was about all I usually had to say!
    It was a lot of fun.

    As to the boozathon...what a super way to describe it!...I was waiting for the police to rush in with handcuffs!

  7. Very funny! I can just see the guys looting the cupboard.

  8. Great story, Fly. You paint such a picture of the amateur dramatics club!

  9. I did almost something very similar as a child at Cheddar gorge - crawled on my stomach to the edge of a very high cliff and looked over. Both my parents have vertigo. They went ballistic.

  10. Dedene, I was stunned!

    Sarah, they were a great bunch...I never thought I would ever do am dram....after the reputation it had in the U.K. as the adultery club, too...but it was such fun.

    Pueblo girl, is there something about the Cheddar Gorge that brings out the devil in one?

  11. Another fabulous tale, Fly. For some reason, it brought to mind a girlhood adventure involving a load of people on a chartered bus lurching around a mountain's curves while the driver and several others got drunk on grain alcohol...

    A post for another day.

  12. post sounds almost French!

  13. Dear Fly,

    Please see my latest posting, per your request!

  14. e...that's a superb post!
    Amazing to think that it was peaceful enough to travel through Columbia looking at leather goods factories!
    And the guaro in the brown paper bag!

    Many thanks!

  15. P(V)LiF....from what I gathered, he was right.
    The ones which seemed to be the worst were visits to the Cognac houses on the Charente and being abandoned at the bottom of the Mine Bleu in Anjou for misbehaviour.

  16. Fly, you've done it a again. This story is delightful....the details like the daughter running down the road with pills and continually being counted...and of course, the elastic stockinged legs. Absolutely charming

  17. Delana, they were a super bunch of people...elastic stockings and all...and it wouldn't be France without the pills!

  18. yes, what is it about the medicine! I have never seen so much pill popping in my life. I never go to a doctor, but when my french friends come home from a visit, they've got a basket full. I'm surprised it doesn't kill them. And whenever I have the least little ailment...they ask me if I've been to a doctor and gotten something for it! And I thought American doctors were in bed with the pharmaceutical companies!

  19. Delana, you have the pill for the ailment, then the pill for the side effects of the pill and the pill for the side effects of that pill....and then the cream to rub on...
    You daren't open a bathroom cabinet for fear of being crushed under a ton of medicine bottles either.

    I stick to whisky.

  20. Nice posting. Thanks for sharing such a nice article. Liked the post. keep it up.